The Long Apprenticeship of a Writer…
I think a writing career has to be just about one of the hardest things to get off the ground. I should know. In the late-90s I discovered the horror small press after stumbling onto an issue of Cemetery Dance in a book store. Having just graduated college (and armed with the monstrosity that was the Brother Word Processor) I tried my hand at writing a few stories. I even remember being part of a public reading at the local library near my home town. The story I read was hideously-written, of course. A revenge story in the spirit of horror anthology television shows like Tales from the Crypt. I think I called it “Getting Ahead”.
And, yes, it was a decapitation story.
I wasn’t exactly a fan of subtlety, in those days. 22 going on 12.
I think, at some point not that far into my writing journey, the Brother Word Processor gave up the ghost. I was forging my way ahead as a young adult and had long-ago learned not to ask Mom and Dad for money. I was fairly poor in those days. I lacked emotional maturity and, frankly had other priorities besides writing.
Like partying. (Remember, I was 22 going on 12. I’d grown up in a dysfunctional quasi-fundamentalist family and was pulling the kind of stunts in my early twenties that most kids get out of their systems in their teens).
Fast forward to the year 2000 and 2001. I was a bit more stable, financially. I decided to give writing another try. This time, I got involved with a group — the now-long-defunct Baltimore-Washington Chapter of HWA. In some ways, this was a magical time. I had a chance to get to know Brian Keene at a point in his career shortly before he made it big. I met folks like Matt and Deena Warner. Meghan Euringer back when she was Megan Fatras. I attended group meetings and went to my first horror convention (one of the first HorrorFind cons). I rediscovered my love of television horror hosts.
But I didn’t do a lot of writing. And even when I did, I never ran my work by other folks for critique. My mind was constantly distracted by personal demons I’d yet to slay and my self-care was abysmal. Somewhat amazingly, I managed to sell a short story to Cemetery Dance for its Richard Laymon tribute anthology In Laymon’s Terms. (Again, lacking in subtlety…entitled “Scabby Nipples and Sharp Teeth”…at least that made sense, given it was for a Laymon tribute).
And then my self-care got worse. And then I made poor choices about relationships. And then…and then…and then…my life crash landed in the Midwest. Or the South. (The confluence of the Midwest and the South, actually).
Thus started the great shut-down. The great rebuilding process. The slaying of demons. The time of simply learning how to live again. Giving the soul a chance to heal from all the adventures and misadventures I’d inflicted upon it. The time of building healthier relationships.
Fast forward to 2008. I started to write again. This time, armed with some maturity, I realized I needed help to achieve my writing goals. If there was any benefit to my previous two aborted attempts at writing, it’s that they forced me into finally admitting I couldn’t learn this craft all on my own. They’d made me teachable.
I attended Gary Braunbeck’s short story critique workshop at the Context convention in 2008. I became a writing class junkie. I took classes at Context, classes at the Indiana Horror Writers’ annual winter retreat. (I’d once again hooked up with a local HWA chapter). And then I started writing every night. I started reading every night. I started submitting short fiction regularly.
I consider 2008 to be the “real” start of my writing career. It was the year I was finally able to dedicate my full attention to writing, instead of personal-demon-slaying. My progress has been steady. I’ve grown and changed since that time. I had an early interest in the Bizarro scene (and am grateful I spent time there…it taught me to write fearlessly) but I found over time that my tastes simply changed. I fell in love with the quiet surrealism of Ligottiesque horror, in love with dead guys like Algernon Blackwood, and fell a bit out of love with the pop weirdness of Bizarro. Honestly, I wanted to add more colors to my palate, too. I’d read a lot of Braunbeck and Ketchum and John Cheever and Alan Moore and Caitlin Kiernan and Glen Hirshberg and a fair bit of Lovecraftian and neo-Lovecraftian stuff and wanted to be able to achieve something along the lines of what all those other writers achieved (not out of envy, exactly, so much as I wanted to do more as a writer; I was excited about new possibilities). Just an honest process of growing and changing.
Instead of fighting the change, I went with it. I dated Bizarro, but I didn’t marry it. (And I don’t mean to criticize anyone who has “married” Bizarro. I still have friends in that scene, and appreciate that they’re writing what they love. If it’s the right fit for you, great. It just wasn’t for me. For me to write what I love, I had to move on.)
Thus, another level of apprenticeship — taking a few years to learn how to write the quiet stuff — using the short story form as my primary tool for experimentation. For years, I assumed I would just be a short story writer. (I’d tried to write a novel in early 2011. I wrote it for all the wrong reasons — primarily, because I thought that’s what all the cool kids were doing. I finished it, only to realize it wasn’t very good at all. Four months and 110,000 words down the tube.)
I wasn’t ready. So I went back to writing short stories.
Fast forward to 2012. My short stories started to get longer and longer and longer. Just naturally. Without trying to make them longer. Six thousand words. Seven thousand words. Eleven thousand words (woah, my first novelette). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Children of No One — weighing in at just over 18,000 words. A short novella, but a novella nonetheless (the “official” cut-off for a novella is 17,500 or larger). I hadn’t set out to write a novella. I’d just wanted to write a short story. But the story — quite of its own accord — started growin’.
The new novella I just finished (tentatively titled The New God) is about twice as long…35,000 words. Again, I wasn’t trying to write something longer. It just happened.
Think about that. It’s only now (after years of apprenticeship) that I’m able to really stretch my writing into the novella range. We’ll see how things progress. It could be that I stay at this novella plateau for awhile, or it could be that I’ll start writing novel-length fiction soon. I’m going to just follow my natural progression as a writer. Not try to force things (like I did with the failed novel attempt in 2011; I wrote that novel for all the wrong reasons…I didn’t love the story or the characters…I loved the daydream of landing an agent and having my name on a mass market paperback…which is ironic when you consider that the mass market paperback is going the way of the dodo).
So, yeah, anyway, this is the part where I sigh and say “what a long, strange trip it’s been”. The part where I take stock and tell you what I’ve learned along the way.
I’ve learned that there are lots of different ways to build a writing career. I’ve learned that all advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve learned that some people in this field teach you how to act and some people in this field teach you how not to act. I’ve learned that the small press is populated with a disproportionate number of loveable flakes, but also some folks who aren’t so flaky and are, in fact, quite, quite serious and businesslike. Sometimes, they’re even loveable, too.
I’ve learned that, at least for the time being, I’m not a good fit for local writers’ groups.
I’ve learned that I need to take ownership over my own dreams. I define what success means for me, and I find that harder to do if I’m surrounded by people who often share what success means for them. I don’t find it beneficial (for me) to put anyone on pedestals or elevate anyone to hero status. There are folks who have obtained admirable success, and I can learn from them as long as I realize I’m not them and they’re not me and I will probably have to tinker with the advice they give so that it fits me and my career path.
Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that there are no gurus. I’ve learned to distrust our species’ instinct for erecting hierarchies (even in the arts). I’ve learned if I get too obsessive about publishing pecking-orders (including “what level” of publishing I’m at), I lose a little piece of my soul.
I’ve learned I have what it takes to get published and get published well and get praised by folks whose praise matters to me. I’ve learned how to get the word out about my book and how to engage with bloggers and internet radio folks and the like so that the book will sell. I’ve learned that I’ll have to do that over and over (twenty, thirty, fifty times) before I start to really make the impact I want to make in this field.
I’ve learned this is a marathon, not a sprint. At the same time, I’ve learned that the Grim Reaper can tap me on the shoulder at any time.
I’ve learned life is too short . I’ve learned that life is unfair. I’ve learned that life is a nightmare.
I’ve learned to enjoy nightmares.
I’ve learned that there’s a time for taking stock and learning lessons, and then time to get off one’s ass and do shit. I’ve learned that if I gaze into my belly-button, just focusing on the lessons I’ve learned, I won’t build any sort of momentum in my writing career.
I’ve learned the building momentum is probably one of the most important things in a writing career.
I’ve learned I desperately
want need a writing career.
I’ve learned it’s time to stopping blogging and go write.